Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from January 11 through January 14.
January 11, 1947 – The first flight of the McDonnell F2H Banshee. Following the arrival of the jet engine during WWII, the US Navy was keen to take advantage of the new technology. They were impressed with the work done by fledgling aircraft designer James McDonnell on the radical XP-67, so the Navy enlisted McDonnell to develop a jet fighter that could operate from the decks of Navy carriers. The aircraft that came out of this work was the McDonnell FH Phantom, a straight-wing, twin-engine fighter that, while only built in small numbers, proved that naval jet operations were feasible. But even as the Phantom was making a name for itself as the first pure jet aircraft to operate from the deck of an aircraft carrier, McDonnell was already working on a successor before the Phantom even entered production.
The Banshee, as the new fighter was called, was essentially an enlarged Phantom, but the Westinghouse J34 turbojet engines provided almost twice the power of the Phantom’s J30s. Other improvements included the repositioning of the guns to below the nose to avoid blinding the pilot while firing at night, a pressurized air-conditioned cockpit, and bulletproof canopy glass that was heated to prevent frost. Since the Banshee shared a lineage with the earlier Phantom, commonalities between the two fighters allowed McDonnell to complete the prototype just three months after the first Phantoms came off the production line. And, following their experience of the Phantom, the Navy accepted the Banshee with minimal flight testing.
As with all early turbojet-powered aircraft, range was an issue with the first Banshees. To address this deficiency, McDonnell added a 13-inch section to the fuselage which increased fuel capacity by 176 gallons, and permanent wingtip tanks were installed that added another 400 gallons. This aircraft became the F2H-2 and was the most-produced variant of the 895 aircraft built by McDonnell. Eight underwing hard points could hold nearly 1,600 pounds of external stores, and more powerful J34-WE-34 turbojets pushed the Banshee to 580 mph in level flight.
The Banshee was introduced into Navy and Marine Corps service in 1948 and became one of the primary US aircraft flown during the Korean War, where it was affectionally called “Banjo” by its pilots. Initially employed as a high-altitude escort for American bombers, the destruction of the North Korean air force soon freed up the Banshee to take over low level ground attack missions. Since most of their missions were flown over South Korea, and not near the Yalu River bordering China to the north, the Banshee never had to mix with Chinese fighters coming south, and therefore scored no air-to-air victories during the war. As a result, only three Banshees were lost, all to ground fire. In the era before antiaircraft missiles, the speed of the Banshee also made it an invaluable asset as a reconnaissance aircraft, where it could fly high and fast above the battlefield, practically immune to antiaircraft fire. Despite its excellent service, advances in swept-wing fighters led the Navy to retire the Banshee in 1959 in favor of more modern designs. But McDonnell continued to provide the US Navy with fighters, first with the F3H Demon, and then with the remarkable F-4 Phantom II, a more than worthy heir to the Phantom name.
January 13, 1942 – The first flight of the Sikorsky R-4. We tend to think of the helicopter as a relatively recent invention, but as early as 1493 Leonardo da Vinci envisioned a vehicle that could take off and land vertically. He called it an “aerial screw,” and it worked on the same principal as a screw moving through water. It is unlikely that his invention would ever have worked, and he never made a model of it that we know of. But man’s fascination with vertical flight continued into the 20th century, and many aircraft designers attempted to create a vertical flying machine. The German aircraft builder Focke-Wulf built the first fully functioning vertical flying machine with the Fw 61, which used a dual rotor system that was capable of vertical, controlled flight. But it was Igor Sikorsky who ultimately perfected the helicopter we recognize today.
Sikorsky emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1919 after becoming a successful designer of large airplanes and flying boats. By 1938, he began working on the problem of vertical flight, and his efforts resulted in the VS-300, the first successful helicopter in the US to use a single lifting rotor, the first to use a single tail rotor to counter torque from the main rotor, and the first to power both rotors with a single engine. It took two more years for Sikorsky to perfect the VS-300, but the true breakthrough came with his development of cyclic control, which altered the angle of the rotor disc to allow the helicopter to move in all directions of flight. Having perfected this system of control, which is still used today, Sikorsky moved on to refining the VS-300 into a machine that he could sell to the US Army or, for that matter, anybody else who would buy it.
Sikorsky called his new machine the VS-316, and like the VS-300 it was constructed from a frame of steel tubes. But the two-seat cockpit was completely enclosed with fabric, as was much of the fuselage. The first flight was made using a 165 hp Warner radial aircraft engine, but later models received a more powerful seven-cylinder Warner Scarab radial engine that produced 200hp and could propel the helicopter to about 75 mph with a ceiling of 8,000 feet. The Army tested first helicopter, designated the XR-4, and accepted the new rotorcraft in 1942. During the test regime, the XR-4 set records for endurance, altitude, and airspeed during a cross-country flight from Connecticut to Ohio. The flight covered 761 miles and the XR-4 as high as 12,000 feet and as fast as 90 mph.
Following its acceptance by the Army, the R-4 became the first mass produced helicopter in the world. Sikorsky built 131 R-4s for the US Army, US Coast Guard, and the Royal Air Force, where it was known as the Hoverfly I. And, in a demonstration of how invaluable the helicopter would become in the future, US Army Lt. Carter Harman conducted the first combat rescue by helicopter in 1944, flying his R-4B to recover four members of an air crew that had crashed on a mountaintop in the China-Burma-India theater.
January 14, 1953 – The first flight of the Convair F2Y (YF-7) Sea Dart. With 71-percent of the Earth covered in water, it only made sense that designers would work to develop aircraft that could operate from the surface of the water. Runway space would be virtually unlimited, and transoceanic flights enjoyed an added measure of safety with the ability to land just about anywhere in case of emergency. Flying boat airliners began plying the skies in the 1930s, and seaborne fighter aircraft were developed during WWII, particularly by the Japanese, who operated them from their far-flung island bases. With the advent of the operational jet engine late in the war, Saunders-Roe, a company famous for flying boats, produced the SR.A/1, a jet powered seaplane fighter, in 1947. Not to be outdone, the US Navy issued a request for proposals in 1948 to develop their own waterborne jet fighter.
Convair had already been working on an internal project to create a jet that would use the shape of the wing and fuselage for buoyancy. Called the Skate, the aircraft progressed to the point of the construction of a flying scale model, though it bore little resemblance to the future Sea Dart. Nevertheless, Convair gained valuable experience in the seaplane fighter concept. At the same time, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was working on the concept of a seaborne fighter, and their work pointed toward retractable skis as being the best means of operating from the surface of the water. Not only would they be able to absorb the buffeting of takeoff and landing, the skis could also be retracted in flight to reduce drag.
At the time of the Navy’s request, Convair was working on their delta-winged F-102 Delta Dagger, and it was this aircraft that formed the basis for the Sea Dart. In addition to mounting skis, other modifications were required, such as a reshaping of the fuselage to make it buoyant, and the movement of the air intakes aft and upward to avoid water ingestion. The Sea Dart also had two engines versus the Delta Dagger’s one.
Testing began with a series of taxi tests, and it was during one of these tests that the Sea Dart left the surface of the water, making its unintentional first flight of about 1,000 feet. The official first flight was undertaken on April 9, 1953. This flight had been delayed because Convair was struggling with severe ski pounding as the Sea Dart accelerated on the water. Ultimately, engineers tried over 100 different ski shapes and shock absorber configurations as they tried to overcome the problem, and eventually determined that a single wide ski worked better than two narrower ones. But even when the Sea Dart got into the air, it could only manage a speed of Mach .99, and could only break the sound barrier in a shallow dive.
Convair considered a complete redesign of the Sea Dart, with a switch to a single, more powerful engine, and that aircraft would have received the designation XFY-2. However, a crash during a demonstration flight which killed Convair test pilot Charles Richbourg sealed the fate of the innovative fighter. The program was canceled, and the remaining four aircraft eventually found their way to museums around the country. Interestingly, even though the Sea Dart never entered production, the Navy still redesignated the aircraft as the YF-7 six years after its cancellation as part of the Tri-Service aircraft designation system adopted in 1962.
January 11, 1988 – The death of Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Born on December 4, 1912 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Boyington began his military flying career as an aviation cadet in the US Marine Corps Reserve before resigning his commission to fly with the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, fighting for Nationalist China against the Japanese. Returning to the USMC in 1942 at the rank of major, Boyington became famous as the commander of VMF-214, better known as the Black Sheep, a squadron flying the Vought F4U Corsair in the Pacific. In January 1944, Boyington tied the record of famed WWI ace Eddie Rickenbacker with 26 victories, but was then shot down and ended the war as a POW. Following the war, Boyington received the Navy Cross and the Congressional Medal of Honor.
January 11, 1944 – USAAF Major James Howard earns the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on a bombing mission over Germany. While on a mission to protect US bombers on a mission over Germany, Howard’s formation was attacked by a large number of German fighters. Finding himself alone after the other elements of his wing had moved to the rear of the formation, Howard saw more than 30 German fighters attacking the lead elements of the formation. Despite being hopelessly outnumbered, Howard pressed the attack in his P-51 Mustang, eventually shooting down as many as six enemy fighters in a fight that lasted 30 minutes. He continued to swoop at the remaining fighters after he had run out of ammunition and his fuel had run critically low. When he retuned to base, he reportedly discovered just a single bullet hole in his Mustang. For his actions, Howard was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. He survived the war, retired from the US Air Force as a Brigadier General, and died in 1995 at age 81.
January 11, 1935 – Amelia Earhart becomes the first pilot to fly solo between Hawaii and the United States. Amelia Earhart is perhaps the world’s best known aviatrix, but that fame was garnered more for her unsuccessful flight around the world when she disappeared without trace over the Pacific Ocean with navigator Fred Noonan in 1937. As a trailblazing woman pilot, Earhart was the first woman to cross the Atlantic as a passenger in 1928, then made the transatlantic flight herself as a solo pilot in 1932. Three years later, flying eastward from Honolulu, Hawai’i to Oakland, California, Earhart became the first aviator, man or woman, to fly solo across the eastern Pacific, making the 2,400-mile journey in 18 hours while flying a Lockheed Vega that first had been shipped to Hawai’i.
January 12, 1962 – The US Air Force begins Operation Ranch Hand. Operation Ranch Hand was a part of the larger Operation Trail Dust which sought to spray chemical defoliants over the dense jungles of South Vietnam in an effort to expose the movements of Viet Cong troops and destroy crops. The most widespread chemical defoliant used was nicknamed Agent Orange, and over a ten-year span more than 20,000 sorties were flown over the countryside of South Vietnam, most by formations of Fairchild C-123 Provider cargo aircraft each carrying 1,000-gallon tanks of the herbicide. By the end of operations, approximately 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed, while 5 million acres of forest and 500,000 acres of crops were heavily damaged or destroyed. The chemicals found in the defoliants were later traced to cancers and birth defects among those who came in contact with them, both Vietnamese civilians and US military personnel alike. Tactically, the use of defoliants was largely unsuccessful.
January 12, 1953 – The US Navy begins operational flights from USS Antietam (CV-36), the first carrier to feature an angled deck. Earlier aircraft carriers had straight decks that were fine for propeller aircraft, but the higher landing speeds of jet aircraft made such an arrangement much more dangerous. The idea for an angled flight deck was first proposed by Royal Navy Captain Dennis Campbell, but it was the Americans, with Antietam, who first proved the benefits of this design when a sponson was added to support the overhanging angled deck. Existing Essex and Midway class carriers were retrofitted with angled decks, while the first purpose-built American angled deck carrier came with the Forrestal class. The first British carrier constructed with an angled deck was HMS Ark Royal (R09).
January 12, 1912 – The first flight of the Curtiss Model F, a pre-WWI flying boat developed by Curtiss and flown in large numbers by the US Navy By 1917, the Model F had become the standard flying boat trainer. The biplane aircraft had a crew of two and was powered by a single engine powering a pusher propeller. More than 150 Model Fs were produced in a total of seven variants. In addition to the US Navy, the Model F was flown by Brazil, Italy, England and Russia, who ordered two batches of the flying boat.
January 13, 2009 – The death of Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering Australian aviatrix and the founder and patron of the Australian Women Pilots’ Association. Walton was born in 1915, and at the age of 19 she became the youngest Australian woman to earn a pilot’s license. After purchasing her first aircraft, a de Havilland Gipsy Moth, Walton, along with friend Peggy McKillop, began a barnstorming tour of Australia and later formed the Royal Far West Children’s Health Scheme, an aerial medical service that covered territory not reached by other flying medical services. The first Qantas Airbus A380 was named in her honor.
January 13, 1982 – Air Florida Flight 90 crashes moments after takeoff from National Airport in Washington, DC. Prior to takeoff for a flight to Miami in snow and icing conditions, the pilots of the Boeing 737-200 (N62AF) failed to utilize the internal ice protection systems on the engines, and used reverse thrust while leaving the gate, an action which may have clogged the engines with ice. After waiting to take off, and building up more snow on the wings, the pilots opted not to return to the de-icing station despite indications that the engines were not performing properly and despite the snow and ice that had built up on the wings. Shortly after takeoff, the 737 crashed into the 14th Street bridges over the Potomac River, killing 74 passengers and crew, as well as four motorists on the bridge. Five passengers survived. The NTSB cited the crew’s inexperience with icing conditions, and the buildup of ice and snow on the wings’ leading edges, as the cause of the crash.
January 13, 1960 – The first flight of the Canadair CT-114 Tutor, the standard Canadian jet trainer from the early 1960s until its retirement in 2000. Strongly resembling the Cessna T-37 Tweet, the Tutor is powered by a pair of Orenda J85 turbojet engines, the Canadian-built version of the General Electric J85. Its straight wings provide excellent low-speed handling, and the design of its vertical stabilizer is intended to help students learn how to recover from a spin. An armed attack version was also developed for the Malaysian air force. Though the Tutor was retired from training duties in 2000 and replaced by the CT-155 Hawk and CT-156 Harvard II, it remains in service with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds flight demonstration team.
January 13, 1940 – The first flight of the Yakovlev Yak-1, a single-seat fighter that served Russia in large numbers during WWII. Despite early teething problems with the design, particularly with oil overheating issues, the Yak-1 was nevertheless an agile and heavily-armed fighter that outperformed most of the enemy aircraft it faced, particularly at lower altitudes where it served as an escort for Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik attack aircraft. A total of 8,700 Yak-1s were built during the war, and when included the Yak-3, Yak-7 and Yak-9 variants, more than 37,500 aircraft were built.
January 14, 1986 – The death of Thierry Sabine, wrangler, motorcycle racer, and founder of the Paris-Dakar Rally. Sabine was a passenger in a Eurocopter Ecureuil helicopter when it crashed into a sand dune in Mali during a sudden sandstorm. Also killed were singer-songwriter Daniel Balavoine, pilot François-Xavier Bagnoud, journalist Nathalie Odent, and RTL radio engineer Jean-Paul Lefur. Despite Sabine’s death, the Dakar Rally continues today, though security concerns forced a move to South America through 2019. Future races will be held in Arabia.
January 14, 1960 – The first flight of the Piper PA-28 Cherokee. The Cherokee is a family of light aircraft that was designed for personal use, flight training, and as an air taxi. The all-metal, unpressurized monoplane received its type certification in 1960, and was subsequently developed into the Arrow, Archer, and Dakota Warrior variants seating either two or four passengers and with either fixed or retractable landing gear. More than 37,500 aircraft of all variants have been built since production began in 1961, and production continues to this day.
January 14, 1950 – The first flight of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17. The MiG-17, NATO reporting name Fresco, entered production in 1952 as an improvement over its predecessor, the MiG-15. Development began in 1949 as an effort to fix deficiencies in the earlier fighter discovered during fighting in Korea. The MiG-17 became one of the world’s most successful transonic fighters, and served into the 1960s. The Fresco also saw action in Vietnam, where its pilots claimed 28 victories against American aircraft. Like other Russian fighters of its era, it eschewed machine guns in favor of a mix of 37mm and 23mm cannons, and more than 11,000 MiG-17s were built by Russia, Poland and China.
January 14, 1943 – Franklin D. Roosevelt becomes the first sitting President of the United States to travel by airplane. WWII was a truly global conflict, and in order for the leaders of the Allied powers to meet in a timely manner, it was necessary for the US President to fly to Casablanca in North Africa for a conference with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Russian General Secretary Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt made this historic 15,000 mile round trip in a Boeing 314 flying boat named Dixie Clipper, becoming the first sitting president to fly in an airplane (Theodore Roosevelt flew before FDR, but he had left office before his flight). While in Africa, Roosevelt also traveled on a US Army Douglas C-54 Skymaster. It wouldn’t be until the presidency of Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, that presidential air travel became commonplace.
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